Addiction treatment experts said the findings were encouraging, especially given how notoriously difficult it can be to help methamphetamine addicts kick their dependence.
But they added that the results will need to be confirmed in larger studies.
Researchers have for years been trying to find a drug to help alleviate dependency on methamphetamine, much as methadone can be used to help people quit heroin, but multiple studies of many different drugs have failed.
Addiction experts said they're cautiously optimistic that the antidepressant mirtazapine, sold under the brand name Remeron, will prove useful.
"This is exciting to see because with methamphetamine, virtually everything we've tried hasn't worked. There have been quite a few bombs pharmacologically," said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychiatry professor and a researcher at the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto who specializes in addiction. "At the same time, those earlier experiences have taught me to be cautious now."
Addiction on the rise
More than 1 million people in the United States use methamphetamine every year, and the nation has seen a resurgence in addiction to the drug in recent years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In San Francisco, among people who seek treatment for drug dependence, about 11 percent are abusing methamphetamine, according to the health department.
The study, results of which were published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, was run by Dr. Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention at the Public Health Department.
His interest in treating methamphetamine addiction stems from the close connection between abuse of the drug and exposure to HIV infection.
Effects of methamphetamine include lowered inhibitions and increased feelings of invulnerability, which in turn can lead to risky sex behaviors like having unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners.
Regular use of methamphetamines among men who have sex with men can double the risk of HIV infection, Colfax said.
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